An Amber Autumn
As I sit here writing and thinking, my front lawn is covered in a carpet of crispy, scarlet maple leaves. It’s Autumn and time for me to farewell ‘Mildred Maple’s’ spectacular summer ‘dress’ and welcome in views of her wide-spreading skeleton of spindly branches.
It’s an inspiring sight, an inspiring season in fact, so a few days ago, I loaded all my sketching gear into a backpack and set out for the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. If anywhere puts on a spectacular autumn show, it has to be Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens.
Although I’ve become a little bit obsessed with sketching trees over the last year – mostly gum trees in Australia – I had no expectations of being able to capture the mood and magic of autumn in the gardens. My visit was more about a change of scenery during this weird Covid-19 lockdown time, and to re-acquaint myself with the gardens after three years in Australia. If I managed to sketch a seed pod, or a pine cone, or a leaf or two, and to come away inspired and somehow calmer and more hopeful after soaking up the beauty of the place, I determined that I would be happy enough.
I wasn’t alone – you rarely are in the gardens; although I do recall one night long ago, when a friend and I ‘got into the gardens’ after dark and sat ‘talking’ on the sun dial in the rose gardens. We were completely alone and I remember it being rather sublime – surrounded by silence, a velvety blackness and heady rose perfume.
Fast forward to 2020 and half of Christchurch seemed to have the same idea as me. People wandered about discussing Covid-19 and their ‘Level 3 bubbles,’ others photographed the autumn trees and family groups picnicked on lawns. I sat among the trees making spidery lines in my sketchbook.
I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve been photographing and walking in the Botanic Gardens since I moved to Christchurch in 1991. It’s been a favourite place for a long time and I missed it while I was away in Australia. It was a joy to return and wander to the familiar trees that have always acted as markers, as way finders - to celebrate the certainty of ‘sameness’ and to delight in small, subtle changes - some weird, new pruning, the replacement of a damaged tree with a perky new sapling, or the increased spread of some of the garden giants.
I grew up in a large garden filled with trees in rural Waikato in the North Island. I spent countless hours creating my own make-believe world amid nature. There were treehouses and ladders up trunks. I collected leaves and seed pods. I gathered acorns and made bubble pipes. I made bark rubbings and collected insects and flowers. I spent hours alone and I loved every minute of it.
(No wonder I actually loved Level 4 Covid-19 Lockdown).
The Botanic Gardens always remind me of that childhood and I love to watch children playing in the trees. I wonder what little games are playing out as they battle each other with stick swords, as they bombard each other with bundles of autumn leaves. And much as I did in my Waikato childhood, I still have my own names for places in the gardens – places that seem to inspire stories and images for me. The magic hiding places in the hydrangea and maple gardens for instance, the lily ponds, and the sticky, humid ‘envelope’ of Cuningham House conservatory, or the deeply bowed branches of giant trees that now act as swings, their bark worn smooth by thousands of children letting their imaginations run wild, as they climb the branches.
When you stand in any part of Christchurch Botanic gardens, it’s hard to imagine that, at the time of European settlement, back in 1850, the area was largely swamp and sand dunes. These days, the 33-hectare gardens on the edge of Hagley Park, are a verdant core in the city; and with at least 8,500 species, they contain one of the largest and most varied collections of exotic plants in New Zealand.
I often stand in some silent corner and try to imagine some of the personal histories that have played out in the gardens since they were founded in 1863, with the planting of an English oak to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. (I never have found that specific oak).
How many people have wandered among the trees to try and soothe their sadness? How many have met their partners for life among the plants? (My own rose garden incident clearly never led to that!) And what about the proposals, the break-ups, the breakdowns, the parties, the reunions, the tears, the laughter? Such a tangled web of human experience and so much of it played out here, in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. If only those old trees could talk!